The Tabor College baseball team set the bar high last season by advancing to the NAIA World Series for the first time in school history.
This season, the Bluejays will seek to return to the national stage.
With seventh-year coach Mark Standiford at the helm, Tabor has moved from a preseason ranking of seventh in the NAIA to No. 4 in the country despite a difficult non-conference schedule.
So far this season, the Bluejays have defeated three Great Plains Athletic Conference teams, two of which were receiving votes in the national poll and one that ranked No. 14 at the time. Tabor also picked up a win against MidAmerica Nazarene, a Heart of Amer?ica Athletic Conference team also receiving votes.
The Bluejays won their first 11 games this season before dropping a 1-0 loss to Oklahoma City University, a team ranked 16th in the nation at the time.
Tabor?s non-conference schedule also included top-ranked Oklahoma Baptist, whom the Bluejays lost to last week, 5-4.
Filling the holes
Tabor?s current successes come despite losing 12 seniors from last year?s team.
Two of the biggest losses are ace pitchers Jacob Webb and Junior Mustain. A sophomore last year, Webb was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 18th round, becoming just the second player in Tabor history to be selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Mustain, too, brought success on the mound. He pitched 99 innings last season with an earned-run average of 1.91. He went 12-2, ranking him fourth in Divi?sion I in wins. He ranked 17th in strikeouts (100). He was a first-team All-KCAC selection and a second-team NAIA All-Ameri?can.
Standiford said it is impossible to replace pitchers like Webb and Mustain.
?We?re trying to find those guys who can come in,? he said. ?We?re never going to replace those guys.?
Even so, Standiford said he?s had players step up, although roles among the pitching staff are still being determined in what he labeled ?a work in progress.?
Heading the list are returning honorable mention all-conference pitchers Russell Longworth (5-1) and Jean Acevedo (4-0). Dustin Hurlbutt (5-0) has been added to the mix, as have David Renteria (2-1), Dylan Algra (3-0) and Greg Turner (1-1), among others.
?The amount of pitchers that have thrown this year is double what we threw last year just because we don?t have those two horses,? Standiford said. ?We?re having to find different ways to get those innings done, and so there?s a lot of guys throwing, which is good in my mind. It helps create a healthy staff and gives the guys a lot of opportunity anyway.?
In addition to losing Webb and Mustain, Tabor lost KCAC Player of the Year and first-team pick Kirk Rocha (outfield) and Troy Torres (third base), another first-team selection. Tabor lost second-team picks CJ DeDeaux (catcher), Kevin Seeger (infield), Grant Silva (outfield) and Alex Mann (pitcher), as well as honorable mention All-KCAC Keenan Chanin (outfield).
Only a handful of players return with varsity experience.
Leading that list is senior Gadiel Baez, a second-team All-KCAC pick, who will anchor the defense at second base.
?Gadi, in my mind, is probably the best middle infielder in our conference by far,? Standiford said. ?He?s a guy who has outstanding hands. He?s a leader out there. He?s had an outstanding year so far, and he anchors our whole defense, there?s no doubt.?
Colton Flax, a sophomore first baseman and designated hitter, was named KCAC Freshman of the Year last season. Also returning is junior second baseman Ryan Neufeld, who has assumed pinch-running duties.
Standiford said changes have had to be made to the outfield as a result of injuries, and returning senior Pete Lelich is seeing more time in the outfield this year.
?We came in thinking our outfield was the deepest part, and we?ve had two guys who have gotten hurt,? Standiford said. ?We had to redshirt them, so it?s been depleted just a little bit.?
Tabor has added 31 new players this year, a majority of whom are junior college transfers.
The recruits include centerfielder Jerrik Sigg, a sophomore transfer from Wichita State, to fill the three-hole spot in the lineup. He is batting .363 through 31 games and leads the team in runs batted in with 29.
?We got (Jerrik) at break, and he?s been a great asset to have,? Standiford said. ?He?s a great leader, both on the field and off the field.?
Alex Couch, a junior third/first baseman, comes to Tabor from Walters State Community College and serves as Tabor?s cleanup hitter. Through 29 games, Couch leads the team with a .416 batting average.
?He?s stepped up and been outstanding for us,? Standiford said.
Manny DeLeon, a junior utility/pitcher, is a transfer from Iowa Lakes Commun?ity College who is batting .394 through 28 games. As a pitcher, he is 2-0 with an ERA of 2.65.
?He?s been asked to do a lot and has done very well, too,? Standiford said.
Tabor?s leadoff hitter, Michael Baca, is a junior transfer from the University of Texas-Pan American and is serving as shortstop this year. Through 32 games, he is batting .330.
Matthew Molbury, a senior catcher from the Univer?sity of Central Missouri, is splitting time behind the plate with returner Armando Castillo.
?They both have been outstanding behind the plate,? Standiford said.
The Bluejay lineup is fluid, Standiford said, with more than just nine players contributing on any given day.
?We try to put our starting lineup according to who we?re facing,? Standiford said. ?A lot of things factor into that as far as the field we?re playing on, the weather conditions, what player gives us the most tools to work (with) at that area. We have a combination of quite a few guys that play.?
With so many new faces, it has taken time to get players integrated, but Standi?ford said players have already shown an ability to step up.
?It?s been a learning experience and a growing experience because there?s guys that are trying to figure out roles, and it does take time,? he said. ?But for the most part, it?s gone pretty well. We aren?t quite where we need to be, but I am confident.?
Heading into conference play, Tabor?s season record stood at 19-2. That early success should pay dividends for the Bluejays.
?Good teams don?t allow you to hide from your mistakes or weaknesses, they help to expose them,? Standiford said. ?I think that?s basically what the non-conference is for.?
The Bluejays won their first seven KCAC games, including a four-game series sweep of Ottawa, before dropping the final of four games against Kansas Wesleyan.
Standiford said the conference is strong this year.
?Everybody?s beating everybody, which in the past, that was not the case,? he said. ?I would say it?s probably the best since I?ve been here just based off of the teams that are winning. Sterling?s always going to be good. Friends is very good this year. That said, there?s a lot of talent, and I think all the teams are very good.?
Standiford praised his team for the way it has battled through adversity, referencing players who have found ways to get on base for some comeback victories.
?It?s a great characteristic of a good team,? he said. ?That?s probably the biggest positive this team has right now. Not all teams have it.?
As the season progresses, Standiford will be looking for consistency.
?There?s no doubt about that,? he said. ?I think we?ve done that for the most part. Our hitting, I think, is going to be good. Guys are going to go into slumps. That?s just baseball, so we?ve got to be able to work through that.
?If our pitching is consistent and our defense is consistent, we?ve got a chance to win just about every game.?
Tabor (32-4, 7-1) will host Sterling this week in a four-game series. The Bluejays will play a doubleheader at home Thursday before traveling to Sterling Saturday for the final two games of the series. Games both days are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.